After the iconic success of Friends, Lisa Kudrow returned to television with The Comeback - a mock reality show for HBO about a D-list former sitcom star who is documenting her attempts at returning to fame by starring in a reality show. The actress, Valerie Cherish, was a star on a late 80s, early 90s lawyer sitcom, I’m It! (something akin to Ally McBeal). Trying to reassert herself in Hollywood, she gets a role on a show called Room and Bored, a show about a quartet of women who share an apartment. Initially hired to play the lead – a mature, but sexy singleton – the show got rejigged and it became a lame Friends knock off with a group of twenty somethings. Valerie’s role shrunk down to a Mr. Furley-like landlady, perennially clad in a pink tracksuit. She even is gifted with a catchphrase, “I really didn’t need to see that!” Despite getting a job, the show chronicles Valerie’s continuous degradation at the hands of indifferent producers, hostile writers, dismissive directors and a largely clueless public.
For viewers familiar with Kudrow’s work, they can expect a sad and disturbing comedy. The writers put Valerie through a lot of humiliation. Interestingly enough, Valerie’s a decent woman – shes’ sad and pathetic, and places too much importance on her nascent fame, but nothing she does deserves the kind of pain heaped on her shoulders. The most disturbing aspect of the show is the toxic relationship she shared with Room and Bored‘s writer Paulie G (the excellent Lance Barber). He views her desperate attempts at ingratiating herself to the crew with derision and he responds to her meddlesome tips with cruelty.
Fans of The Office will recognize the entertainment value of watching a self-deluded pompous ass get cut down to size - that’s why Ricky Gervais’ creation, David Brent, was so enjoyable to mock; Valerie doesn’t share any of David’s noxious behavior (though like David, Valerie’s absurdly self-involved), so it’s not really fun to watch The Comeback, instead it’s painful. That doesn’t mean the show doesn’t work – itdoes, but it’s not for the faint-hearted.
Kudrow’s very brave and is not a vain actress or comedienne. She allows herself to look pretty bad on camera (especially in a scene when Valeries oversleeps and wakes up unaware that the cameras capture her sans makeup). Also, Valerie has to go through a lot, and Kudrow gamely does pratfalls, appears in horribly-fitting outfits and even gets to vomit at one point. And despite the stylized tone of the show, Kudrow gives a brilliant performance (she was deservedly nominated for an Emmy for the show’s sole season), giving Valerie a wounded soul, with a persistent ambition – she’s a tiny, tiny person, but there’s still a core of strength buried leagues beneath her surface.
The show was brutally canceled after one season – it’s obvious why: the show’s dark and subversive, but patently ahead of its time (even Gervais’ The Office appears mainstream). The show’s story arc does come to a somewhat satisfying conclusion, though.The Comeback is a fantastic show that confirms Kudrow as a premier comedienne and auteur.